Looking After Ourselves

We all put so much effort into the wellbeing of our beloved equines, that it’s ironic how little attention we pay to our own bodies and lifestyles.

Recently I’ve been giving myself a kick up the butt and taking time for self-care.

I have a Friday evening routine of chocolate, wine and a hot bath. Except last night apparently when the hot water has all been used up… Which is downtime for me, where I process the week, think of and plan the weekend, and as much as I can, relax. That along with my early morning rides are my emotional self care and everyone knows not to disturb me during this time!

I used to regularly visit a sports masseuse and osteopath, but post pregnancy it’s gone out the window and then I tried a new osteopath and came away poorer, but not feeling the benefit. However, with shooting pain running up my femoral nerve when I rode anything wider than a hat rack, I took the plunge and tried a Mctimoney chiropractor. Who incidentally treats Phoenix. She declared me very broken, with a tilted pelvis and tight muscles; but a couple of (painful) sessions later and I can feel the benefits. Definitely won’t leave it as long to get myself straightened up and I instantly felt the benefits to my riding. I’d been struggling with Phoenix’s right half pass, which retrospectively isn’t surprising given that my seat was blocking her. It’s still her weaker side but at least now I’m helping her.

At the beginning of the year, a friend told me that their metabolism had slowed down as soon as she’d hit 30 and she’s fought her weight ever since. Bearing in mind that I hit the big three-oh this year, her comment stuck with me. I also feel fairly big on Phoenix; I’m not too big, but I’m very aware that I don’t need to weigh her down with extra baggage. During the first UK lockdown and into the summer I tried to do more exercise, but lacked the motivation to watch a Joe Wicks YouTube video. No one held me accountable if I didn’t do it, and I hadn’t lost out by not doing it. Equally, I didn’t particularly push myself on the few that I did do because no one was cracking the whip.

So I decided that really I should join a fitness class and get myself a personal trainer of some sort. However, I already have an active job and go to Pilates weekly so I needed to compliment this. Plus there’s the whole time, childcare juggling act to factor in.

I’ve also been teaching a lot of children recently, involving a lot of lead rein work, which made me aware that I’m not fit from a cardiovascular point of view and running in canter was far more tiring than it should be!

I eventually plucked up the courage to ask a trainer, recommended by a client, and who I vaguely knew, if I could join a weekly class of hers. This coincided with lockdown #2 so became an online class, as did my Pilates.

I’m not sure how well online exercise classes will fare long term. For me, I gain a bit of extra time in the day – that spent travelling to the class – and I don’t have to worry about childcare. Just some strategic planning with snacks and activities. However, if you aren’t used to doing exercise, or have previous injuries I can imagine you could do yourself some damage as your trainer can’t monitor you as closely on screen as in person. You also miss out on the social side, and if you’re an office worker, the outdoors time. Neither of which affects me, as I can moan about the number of burpees we had to do with my client who signed me up and actually enjoy the opportunity to be warm and dry for an hour! There’s probably a balance to be struck between online classes and face to face ones; but it will be interesting to see what happens when restrictions lift and social distancing reduced.

The first week was agony. It took me three days to be able to walk upstairs. But each week is feeling easier and I can definitely feel muscles developing. I’m sure this cardio and strength work will help my overall fitness, and I think one class of this and another of pilates combined with more than ten hours in the saddle a week is enough focused exercise.

It’s amazing the difference a little bit of self care makes in terms of energy levels, quality of sleep, quality of work and enthusiasm. I’m also having two early morning rides at the yard each week which takes the pressure off me needing to ride when a certain toddler isn’t feeling cooperative, and means Phoenix gets two decent workouts which means she’s less of an activated grenade to ride for the rest of the week should work and weather limit my opportunities to ride. Plus, I enjoy those mornings of peace.

I tend to make small changes to create new habits rather than going all in and causing problems, so after Christmas my self care resolutions will be to adjust my diet to help maximise my energy levels and then having my hair cut (sorely neglected because I don’t like going to salons and the whole pandemic situation). Maybe I’ll cut it all off and donate it to charity to make a wig…

Anyway, make a couple of changes for yourself, and put as much effort into making yourself feel and perform at your best that we do with our horses!

Back To Fitness

As lockdown is easing in the UK, many horse owners will start to look at bringing their horses back into work and increasing their fitness.

How long this takes depends on your fitness goal and your horse’s current level of fitness, age and previous injuries.

If your horse has been turned away in a sizeable field with companions it will be surprising how much fitness he has retained walking around the field and playing with friends. However, if your horse has an old injury or is stabled overnight with individual turnout they won’t have retained as much fitness.

Whilst not riding, some owners have continued long reining or lunging their horse, so will have a slight advantage over the furloughed horses.

Something to consider though, is your fitness as a rider. This has probably deteriorated with staying at home as well as doing less equine activities.

One of my client’s horses has had seven weeks off, but he’s now coming back into work as he lives at home and I don’t need to see anyone when I go to ride. We need to consider his mental well-being as well as his physical health. He is looking plump, but is also bored only being in his field. Well, that’s what I like to think as he trotted over to me when I appeared with his saddle today!

To use him as an example, he has some fitness from being in a field 24/7, so I started with a generous half hour walk around the village, with no terrain. He returned home with a little sweat on his girth area and had obviously worked without stressing his body. This will steadily increase on hackd, in duration and incorporate terrain over the next couple of weeks before short periods of trot are introduced. As with the walk, the trot periods will increase in duration, frequency and include terrain.

Depending on how we’re getting on with his fitness, the ground and lockdown in general, I’ll look at starting some canter work in week four.

This horse has no previous injuries for me to worry about, and we aren’t in a rush to get him fit for a competition deadline, so I will take it steadily with him. Aiming for him to come back from each ride slightly sweaty, and having increased his pulse and respiration rate during the ride.

Schooling for short periods can be introduced early on, to provide variety to the work. If you jump, then you’ll want to introduce trot polework when the trot is established, and canter poles and jumping once the canter work has been introduced, always monitoring how well your horse is coping with the exercise.

I think it’s most important to listen to the horse when fittening them; assess their recovery after work, keep a close eye on their body and behaviour for signs of fatigue, and for any signs of soreness or injury afterwards. Even if you have a fitness deadline, such as a competition, it is better not to rush the fittening, and plateau for a while if necessary until your horse’s body is managing with the current workload.

Getting Fit

I’ve started riding this large Shire cross a couple of times a week and it’s made me think about fitness and getting different types of horses fit.

I ride him for an hour and tend to start with fifteen minutes in the school of trot and canter, before embarking on a hack which in this weather is fairly steady. 

However, after each ride he is dripping in sweat and breathing fairly heavily, despite the fact that the last fifteen minutes of the ride are a steady walk. Today we got back and I dismounted to untack and his head sank to the floor, so his chin was resting on the ground. I laughed at him, sure that he wasn’t that exhausted, and felt it would’ve been easier to untack him if I’d sat on the floor.

Anyway, it’s the first time I’ve ridden a really cold blooded horse, and the way they are built means they need their fitness built up differently. 

I tried to remember my GCSE P.E. lessons and the body types there are. An ectomorph is a tall, thin person with lots of fast twitch fibres, which makes them good at sprinting and other fast exercise. The thoroughbreds are the ectomorphs of the horse world. A mesomorph is a person who can put on muscle very easily, so the weight lifters of the world. I’m not a hundred percent sure which breed of horse fits this – any suggestions welcome!

Finally, you have the endomorph, which I remembered as the dumpy physique (the letter d is in both words). Endomorphs have lots of slow twitch fibres which makes them good at stamina related exercise.

I think that draught horses, or cold bloods, are the equine equivalent of the endomorph. After all, they evolved with the primary job of being able to pull heavy objects, such as ploughs, for long periods, but at a steady pace. This means that they have a large proportion of slow twitch fibres, and subsequently are quite hard to get fit. Also, even when fit they will still have quite a round physique, unlike the streamlined fit racehorse.

Most riding horses will have more fast twitch than slow twitch fibres, so progressively increasing the duration of work in mixed gaits will rapidly get them fitter. Whereas this Shire cross that I’m riding needs lots of slow steady work to build his fitness up; so an hour of walking is more beneficial to him than half an hour of schooling or trot work, or a turn on the gallops.

Of course, the trot and canter needs to be included in his workouts, but with plenty of breaks and a very slow increase in duration so that his body doesn’t become overly tired and fatigued, otherwise he risks injuring himself.

I had noticed that this horse wasn’t quite as sweaty today as last week, so hopefully we’re on the right track and soon his workload can increase slightly. It is interesting to work with a horse so much bigger and heavier than most riding horses, and it made me think about allowances you need to make (soft ground may be fine for the 15hh thoroughbred to canter on, but a heavier horse will find it much more of a strain) with draught horses when developing an exercise program for them.

  

Different Fitnesses

I hack a horse once a week for his owner. She much prefers the schooling side of things, but wants her horse to have some downtime in the form of his weekly hack.

I started riding this horse in January, and was told that he struggles to walk down inclines due to his side bone, so I was to be careful not to choose too steep a downhills, to let him take his time and I . This is fine by me, and the first few hacks I planned my routes carefully, making sure I picked a couple of routes with the steeper uphill, and shallower downhill.

As I`ve got to know this horse I haven`t thought as much about our hacking routes, they come naturally. But last week I suddenly realised that, as we walked through the woods, that we had just walked down a slope that only a month ago he pottered down. This made me reflect upon this horse and his way of going on hacks.

Compared to our first couple of months of hacking, when the weather was against us, and he wasn`t hacking fit; this horse is now more surefooted, both up and downhills, and can trot or canter for longer periods, particularly on slight uphills. 

This was more noticeable today when I went down to the gallops. We trotted up a track in the field, and didn`t run out of steam half way up, and then we positively marched down the next field, confident and surefooted. Again, it wasn`t a steep hill, and we took it at an angle, but I was pleased with how he tackled it. Then we had a little gallop along the gallops, and although we slowed to a medium canter after 100m he still comfortably continued until the end, when a month ago he would have faded halfway along. 

A horse can be fit for a specific job; so a racehorse is fit for galloping very fast for short periods, but would be useless at endurance. Likewise, a dressage horse can work at a steady pace on a soft, flat arena, but will struggle to jump a course of showjumps. For the horse I hack this is a similar case; he is fit to do an hours schooling, but is slowly gaining fitness in other areas; such as surefootedness, and stamina. Hopefully by improving the overall fitness of this horse will help his work in the school, as well as giving him a change of scenery and some down time.

Hacking is really useful for improving a horse`s surefootedness as they have to navigate different terrain, and working up and down hills helps improve their stamina. Getting out and about also helps desensitise horses and make them confident in tackling the world, as well as mentally stimulating them.

Regardless, this horse thoroughly enjoys his hacks out and is always perfectly behaved; he is great in traffic, waits for me to let him canter, pops over the little log we come across and is generally good company.